Joan Fontaine: Hitchcock’s First Leading Lady in Hollywood

When you think of Alfred Hitchcock movies, what comes to mind? Knife jutting through a shower curtain? Cary Grant dodging a low-flying biplane? Birds, and lots of them? Equally iconic as these scenes, Hitchcock’s leading ladies may also spring to mind from a shrieking Janet Leigh to a subtly seductive Eva Marie Saint to poor Tippi Hedren being poked nearly to death by birds. With these images and actresses emblazoned in our mind’s eye, it may be hard to remember that Hitchcock was not always “The Master of Suspense,” that at one time, he was just a foreign director hoping to break into Hollywood (having worked the long way up from silent film title card designer to Britain’s foremost director), and that his first Hollywood leading lady was not a formidable blonde starlet but the demure-looking Joan Fontaine, who at 21 years-old had already been consigned to relatively minor roles after box office flop (but very enjoyable musical comedy) A Damsel in Distress.

Through luck and David O’Selznick, Hitchcock chose Fontaine out of the hundreds who screentested for the coveted role of the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, the O’Selznick-produced film adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel. (Check out one of Fontaine’s seven screentests here.) Over two decades later in one of many interviews for Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock, Hitchcock would tell Truffaut that, “I could see her potential for restrained acting and I felt she could play the character in a quiet, shy manner.” Fontaine herself said it was her “vulnerability” that caught the director’s eye. This collaboration led to Fontaine’s first Academy Award nomination (which she would win a year later for a similar role in the Hitchcock-directed Suspicion), cementing her as one of Hollywood’s leading actresses, and to an entire day being dedicated to her on TCM.


We can never go back to Manderlay again, that much is certain, but sometimes in my dreams…

Reminiscent of Hitchcock’s earlier films (Blackmail, The Lodger), Rebecca is told through the eyes of an innocent female protagonist, the unnamed character played by Joan Fontaine. From Fontaine’s to-be Mrs. De Winter’s opening voiceover onwards, you know you’re strapped in for a suspenseful ride. In true gothic romance fashion, the story begins with Fontaine’s character, a plain professional lady’s companion, interrupting Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) as he contemplates jumping off of a rather steep cliff. Many film historians have noted that Olivier wasn’t too happy with Fontaine’s casting, having wished that the role had gone to Vivien Leigh. Apparently, the two didn’t quite get on like a house on fire, which could account for their awkward chemistry and actually adds to their characters’ uneasy relationship. For example, rather than sweeping her up in his arms then and there, Maxim takes the misogynist courting approach (a Hitchcockian theme, if you will) and admonishes her for not minding her own business. How charming.

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca

Well, actually, considering Maxim is a young Laurence Olivier “aged” by the wonders of Hollywood make-up, the scene is rather charming in a perverse sense (and one that wouldn’t call for the actors to be all that friendly). Before Fontaine’s character can attempt to rationalize that he’s just another troubled middle-aged man, the damage has already been done. So later when she sees Maxim in the hotel lobby in his eveningwear, her inexperienced heart, along with the hearts of the female audience, goes all aflutter. Whereas in later films Hitchcock would use the male gaze to objectify the leading lady (see Vertigo, Rear Window, and Marnie as Laura Mulvey famously noted), he used Joan Fontaine’s female gaze in Rebecca, and later in Suspicion, to mold the leading man into a clouded but still attractive and therefore suspenseful enigma. This dynamic only works with an actress as naïve-looking and earnest sounding as Joan Fontaine, someone we sympathize with while following each step of the twisted way.

I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.

In regards to Maxim, there are warning signs from the very beginning that he’s really not the healthiest romantic interest, let alone marriage material, from his suicide attempt to mentioning how “demons have a way to pop out at you when you’re most desperately trying to forget.” While Fontaine’s character is more concerned about his than her own wellbeing, we the audience are wrapped up in her emotions and worries so much that the twists and turns regarding Maxim’s first wife are just as surprising to us as they are to her.


We identify with Fontaine’s character not just because she is the narrator and protagonist (knowing just as little as we do about where the plot is going), but because of Fontaine’s acting choices. The audience’s trust goes beyond her pretty (but not too pretty) looks. We trust her high hurried, breathless voice much more than a calculated-sounding deeper womanly one (e.g. Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia Huberman in Notorious) or the even deeper, harshly rushed-sounding ones of the other women in Rebecca, particularly her employer Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, in a cinema-shattering performance). Visually, Fontaine brings this feeling to the tight broad smile that represses the boundless joy bursting from her eyes whenever she sees Maxim. Conversely, when she’s overwhelmed or Maxim appears to be upset with her, Fontaine adopts a worried crooked brow holding back the trembling worry from her mouth.


The moment Maxim asks her character to marry him, she doesn’t even blink, let alone wince, when he calls her, “you little fool” (not-so-coincidentally used again in Suspicion). Her character’s only pause is her concern that she isn’t good enough for him, that she is “not the person men marry,” even cold, detached albeit handsome men. Overcoming her self-esteem issues, the young paid companion and the middle-aged wealthy widower marry. A tale as old as time… At least after the fact, Maxim recognizes his wasn’t the most romantic proposal, saying he should have been “making violent love to you behind a palm tree.” (Try not thinking about that the next time you’re in Florida.)

I say, marriage with Max is not exactly a bed of roses, is it?

When Maxim and the now-Mrs. De Winter finally arrive at Manderlay, Maxim’s family home in Cornwall, it begins to rain. (Nice foreboding touch, Hitch.) Once inside, the couple is safe from the downpour, but not from Mrs. Danvers, who makes her spine-chilling presence known within moments, and the haunting memories of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. As if Mrs. De Winter was not already terrified enough about being a new bride and in such grand surroundings (Fontaine looking appropriately shaken and shattered on arrival), Mrs. Danvers makes sure to make her feel unwelcome through mind games bordering on torture. Feeling Maxim distancing himself from her since their arrival at Manderlay and thinking that he still has lingering feelings for his dead first wife, the new Mrs. De Winter goes as far to misguidedly try to model herself off of the old Mrs. De Winter, hoping to be more beautiful and charming and therefore make Maxim happy. All of this comes to a cringing head when Mrs. Danvers tricks Mrs. De Winter into wearing a replica of one of Rebecca’s old gowns to the De Winters’ masquerade ball.

Sound familiar? In Vertigo, Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) dresses Judy (Kim Novak) up like Madeleine (also played by Novak), a woman he once loved. The main difference between these two instances is that while the man is trying to superficially change a woman in order to please himself in Vertigo (assuming that clothes make the woman), a woman is trying to adapt her personality (including outward affectations like new clothing) in order to please her husband in Rebecca. Even when she unknowingly wears a copy of Rebecca’s old ball gown, it is a woman who tricked her. The comparison between these two situations can be made even closer if you interpret Mrs. Danvers’ obsession with Rebecca as a long-harbored love for her former mistress. Before delving more into the gender politics of Mrs. Danvers (a topic for another day), the scene is still framed through Mrs. De Winter’s eyes and distinctly with a female perspective. Again, Rebecca is an example of an earlier Hitchcock film more concerned with the female gaze, albeit a vulnerable and insecure version, compared to Vertigo as a later Hitchcock film more concerned with the male gaze, also vulnerable but not as insecure.

It’s Mrs. De Winter’s gaze that leads her (and the audience) to see Rebecca’s figurative presence all around Manderlay, stirring up more trouble in her marriage to Maxim. As Mrs. De Winter becomes all the more consumed by Rebecca and unearths more about her (Fontaine becoming more twitchy), Mrs. Danvers becomes all the more menacing and seemingly unhinged. Even more maddening in the midst of Mrs. De Winter’s growing concerns, Rebecca’s boat is recovered (the one on which she drowned) and looks rather suspicious, leading to an inquest.

In court, Maxim is asked about his marriage to Rebecca. As he refuses to answer, Mrs. De Winter’s poor nerves can’t handle the pressure and she faints. Hitchcock portrays her fainting through two close-ups of Joan Fontaine (one troubled, one light-headed), spliced between Maxim’s protestations, followed by a wide shot of her falling to the courtroom floor. Originally, Hitchcock had wanted to use a track-out combined with a forward zoom “to show how she felt everything was moving far away from her before she toppled over,” but could not quite pull it off until he made Vertigo.

Later when all is finally revealed and Mrs. De Winter need not worry any longer about whether Maxim still loves his first wife (“You thought I loved Rebecca? You thought that? I hated her!”), you can literally see all of that emotion swept away in Joan Fontaine, as though a mighty burden has been lifted off of her shoulders physically. At the end, (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) as Mrs. Danvers burns down Manderlay and is consumed by the flames, Mrs. De Winter and Maxim cling to each other. Assumedly, they go on to build a new life together on the ashes of Rebecca’s memory (and possibly the literal ashes of Mrs. Danvers). With Manderlay gone, Mrs. De Winter can finally start her new life with Maxim, unhindered by her own insecurities. Similarly, this film marked the beginning of a more illustrious phase in Joan Fontaine’s film career (Suspicion, A Constant Nymph, Jane Eyre, Letter From An Unknown Woman), unhindered by her early career missteps.


Surprisingly enough, Rebecca was the only Alfred Hitchcock-directed film to win the Oscar for Best Picture and after her Best Actress nomination for Rebecca, Joan Fontaine would go on to be the only actor (male or female) to win an Academy Award for their work in a Hitchcock film. Shortly soon after Rebecca, Fontaine begged Hitchcock for the leading role in his upcoming thriller Suspicion, writing “I’m convinced it will be another ‘Rebecca’ and if anything, I find my enthusiasm even greater for Mrs. Hygarth than for Mrs. de Winter.” Fontaine got the part, another “homely” young woman who falls in love with a charismatic enigmatic man (this time played by Cary Grant) to direly dramatic consequences, and won the Oscar this second time around. Many years later in an interview with People, she would name Rebecca as one of the three films of which she was most proud: “Rebecca is a fantastic story, marvelously directed and produced. I like The Constant Nymph very much, and although Suspicion isn’t a classic like Rebecca, it’s damn good.” Although Hitchcock has become more associated with his later icy blondes, Joan Fontaine will always and forever remain his first Hollywood leading lady.

Joan Fontaine is today’s Star of the day on Turner Classic Movies, and this post is in conjunction with the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by our very own Jill Blake, and by Michael Nazarewycz of Scribe Hard on Film.

About Diana Drumm 11 Articles
Diana Drumm is a freelance writer and editor based outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Along with The Black Maria, she writes for The Playlist and Sound on Sight. A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and the University of St Andrews, her “expertise” includes British Cinema and Classic Hollywood. She was fortunate enough to meet and interview Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz, albeit blushing and clumsily throughout, at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. Follow Diana on Twitter at @DianaDDrumm.

1 Comment

  1. I admit I don’t think of Rebecca as a Hitchcock film because it’s so atypical for him. And yet I enjoy it so much more than Suspicion. Thank you for giving me a new prism through which to watch this. Now that you mention the Rebecca/Vertigo similarities, I’m slapping my forehead for not catching it before.

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